THE BEHOLDER by ANNA BRIGHT
A REVIEW by ALEXA DUNCAN
Let me preface this review by saying I haven’t picked up a YA fantasy in a long time. We’re talking months here. I think I’m finally getting to the point in my reading career where fantasy is completely oversaturating the market that is my brain. There are simply too many fantasy books still being published in YA today, and few of them feel very fresh. Contemporay–or urban–fantasy has always been a deep love of mine, thanks to my fanatical Twilight obsession when I was younger–but medieval fantasy such as The Beholder by Anna Bright holds a special place in my heart, too. THe problem with that is the fact that there’s too much of it in YA now.
Unfortunately, The Beholder doesn’t do much to separate itself from the pack.
I didn’t hate The Beholder. I wouldn’t even go so far to say that I disliked it. But I didn’t love it near as much as I wanted to. The Beholder follows eighteen-year-old Selah, the seneschal-elect of her tiny island country of Potomac, as she readies herself to take her father’s place at the seat of Potomac’s government. In order to become seneschal, Selah must marry. She attempts to propose to the boy she’s had a crush on her whole life, and is publicly and humiliatingly rejected in front of the entire court of nobles she’s supposed to be leading. After her failure, Selah is shipped off (literally) by her wicked step-mother to tour the globe in search of a husband. She and the crew of the Beholder (ships always have romantic names like that, don’t they?) must do everything they can to marry Selah off before it’s too late. Too late for what, you ask? I’m not entirely sure.
That’s the main problem with The Beholder. It’s confusing and even messy at times. The world building is the worst offender here. It’s baffling, frankly, and I don’t know how many of the elements of this book made it to print. An editor should have stepped in at some point to tell the author to make her world more cohesive instead of letting her throw in as many elements of as many cultures as she saw fit. Potomac exists on off the east coast of the United States, I think, but the US isn’t the US. It’s just America. But places like New York also exist. They’re also monarchies instead of one big democracy.
East Asia also exists, but none of its countries do, despite some characters having names that are clearly Japanese. England exists, and it’s altogether the same, but Nordic countries are now Norge and Russia is some evil Imperiya? The whole thing was bizarre and I often found myself wildly distracted by how convoluted everything was. I couldn’t concentrate on what was going on with the plot because everything else was so confusing. I still have so many questions. Why did England exist if half these countries are made up? Why does East Asia exist if Japan, Korea, and China don’t? This book badly needed a map, given its many worlds and the fact that it’s a travel book. Selah and her crew hop from country to country on their quest to find her a husband, but you never get a clear sense of exactly where they are.
Further adding to the strangeness of it all is a radio. Yes, a radio. In a book I thought was set in the 17/1800s. It’s such a random thing to throw into your fantasy novel that it completely took me out of the story.
Complaints aside, there were a few things I liked about The Beholder. Bright’s writing is fluid and readable, her descriptions vivid. The characters were all kind of bland, including Selah, but I did absolutely love Torden, her Nordic prince of a suitor. His personality stood out to me the most. I also liked the book’s integration of fairy tales, even if that integration was far from seamless. There are tons of references to King Arthur, Cinderella, The Odyssey, and more. It felt a little heavy handed sometimes, but I didn’t mind. Lastly, I liked that this was a low fantasy. A quieter fantasy, if you will. High fantasy can be intimidating to me, but I always enjoy a fantasy that leans into whimsy, like this one does.
The Beholder is far from a perfect book. It’s messy and odd, but well-written and cozy, like an old sweater with too many threads dangling from the sleeve. I’m interested enough in its story to read the next book, but in the meantime, you can check out a copy of The Beholder at the Oreana library today!